We woke up early on Saturday for our 7 am transportation to the Vatican tour. We had instant coffee in the room, made sure we were appropriately modest in dress and then ran down to catch our ride. We met up with The Roman Guy tour group right outside Vatican City; they keep the groups very small with this tour company, no more than 10 people together and we ended up with only 8 people. The smaller size group is definitely the way to go as some groups inside the Vatican were 50+ people and it seemed like it took them forever to move through each exhibit. Our tour allowed us to enter the Vatican Museum 1 hour before the general public, this made it possible to view the exhibits, including the Sistine Chapel, with very few people around. We were instantly glad we had a guided tour since there is SO much to view inside, it would have been very difficult to understand the significance of everything we saw on our own.
We started in the Vatican Museums which were previously papal apartments; every bit of the interior was lavishly decorated with more frescoes, tapestries and sculptures than you could even imagine. Anna (our tour guide) explained the competitive nature of the popes and how each one intended to outdo the previous one in value and opulence of their art/décor collections; very odd to think of in pious public figures, but this competition left a magnificent collection which everyone can now enjoy. Anna did a great job of moving quickly through the exhibits but sparing no detail in her explanations, we were amazed at her knowledge of the timeline of all preceding popes and how the exhibits related to each one. We were able to walk back and forth multiple times to enjoy the Resurrection of Christ tapestry where the image of Jesus keeps your gaze as you move from one side of the tapestry to the other – shifting perspective; Anna said this usually isn’t possible to do as the hallway would be crammed wall to wall with visitors in a short amount of time. There were lots of mosaic works done throughout the museum with brilliant colors that we were told were naturally occurring forms of marble, very rare and very beautiful; much of it had been “borrowed” from the Roman Forum and Colosseum to decorate the papal apartments. There was an exhibit through a long hallway in which the walls were covered in 16th century maps which were shockingly accurate compared to satellite images we have now; this exhibit may have been Ryan’s favorite of the Vatican.
We were moving at a good rate through the museum so that we could get to the Sistine Chapel while the crowds were still limited to early-entry tour groups. No photos are allowed within the chapel, but it was truly astonishing to see such detailed art coating the entire ceiling, walls and even intricate mosaics on the floor. Anna mentioned that the whole chapel was restored (careful removal of dust and soot from candle smoke) in the 1990s and the colors are shockingly vibrant considering they were initially painted in the 1500s. You’re not allowed to speak above a whisper in the chapel so our guide had mostly educated us on the interior before we arrived to this point. In the bottom right corner of the Last Judgment which is on the far wall of the chapel, Michelangelo painted one of the clergymen with donkey ears and a snake biting his man parts, as it is said this particular clergy had complained of the nudity Michelangelo included in his artwork within the chapel. She also reviewed the 9 panels along the ceiling where Michelangelo’s frescoes demonstrate his interpretation of the book of Genesis. It was nice to be able to move around the chapel and especially to be able to view the floor whose intricate marble mosaics are worth briefly looking away from the ceiling (the neck appreciates that break as well). We moved back through the chapel later on in the afternoon to make our way to the Raphael Rooms and it was incredibly claustrophobic by this time – this is another reason we would recommend the guided tour outside of Vatican public hours.
Belvedere Courtyard and Raphael Rooms
We went out to the Belvedere Courtyard to see the giant pine cone (Pigna) which used to be a fountain. There is also a very modern spherical art installation in the middle of the courtyard which is really interesting to see juxtaposed against the ancient St. Peter’s Basilica and the bronze pine cone of the 15th century. We went through the courtyard to view the collection of marble sculptures which we were told are marble recreations of bronze originals before the bronze had been melted down for re-purposing. There were many statues and many explanations for them, all of which is too much to put here, but again, highly recommend a guided tour through this area as our guide was impressively knowledgeable about everything we encountered and had an answer for almost any additional question we could come up with. Finally we moved into the Raphael Rooms which are four moderately sized rooms that Pope Julius II commissioned painted in frescoes by Raphael, almost like a hand painted wallpaper. One impressive thing we learned about frescoes is that plaster is spread on the wall and the paint is applied before the plaster dries, so that the paint is IN the plaster rather than just ON it; this requires impeccable timing so that the plaster doesn’t dry before completing and also necessitates that any “mistake” area be dried and then chipped off, re-plastered and painted to correct. Anna kept reiterating that “frescoes cannot last forever; they’re not designed to since they are plaster and paint, but we can do our best to preserve them.”
St. Peter’s Basilica
After the Raphael Room’s we exited the museum and headed to St. Peter’s Basilica. The interior of the chapel has no frescoes, everything is mosaic, sometimes even classified as micromosaic using tiny pieces laid together to create a scene – but mosaics ARE made to last. Photos of the artwork within the basilica appear as paintings, but in fact they are all stone mosaics. This fact makes the interior even more awe-inspiring. The chapel truly is humongous, and the church prides themself on this fact by laying demarcations into the floor showing where other large churches would stop if their footprint was put on top of St. Peter’s; again with pride and boastfulness being somewhat confusing attributes as it pertains to the church, but nonetheless impressive in stature. There are many saints and religious figures buried within the building – there is even a pope’s embalmed remains currently on display within the basilica (Pope John XXIII). We stopped to admire the Pieta (Christ and Mary) created by a young, 21 year old Michelangelo. We passed by and rubbed the foot of St. Peter (for luck I think?) before reaching the papal altar beneath the tallest dome in the world. The architect of the dome was, of course, Michelangelo; the true Renaissance man. Since Pope Franky (as Anna referred to the reigning Pope Francis) declared 2016 a Jubilee year, the Holy door to St. Peter’s Basilica was open and people were excitedly flooding through this entrance which we were told marks forgiveness of sins. We did not enter through this door as tour groups are not allowed to enter this way, though Anna made sure we knew we could pass back through that door if we desired after the tour. Standing on the threshold of St. Peter’s basilica we saw a couple of the Swiss Guard in their traditional garb which was, of course, designed by Michelangelo fashion designer extraordinaire. This concluded our Vatican city tour, we had met up at 7:30AM and departed the guide’s company around 1:00PM so we certainly felt we had a full experience.
After the tour we caught a cab back to our apartment, it was around 1:30PM by the time we got home and we were pretty hungry since we’d missed breakfast. We took a recommendation from our host Alberto and went to Sciue Sciue. The restaurant was located on a neat alley not far from our apartment and we were able to snag a table right by the window. We shared a bottle of Prosecco, some fried calamari, zucchini shrimp rollups, a risotto with pumpkin and pistachios, and a sea bass plate. The food was good, though it was all pretty rich and buttery tasting; we were so hungry by this point that it really hit the spot. We decided to take a rest after lunch because we were intending to stay up until our prearranged taxi arrived at 3:30AM to take us to the airport. We packed and relaxed for a while. We decided that since the “Italian” food in Rome wasn’t as good as elsewhere in Italy, we would try to find a more trendy and modern restaurant. Many of the initial finds were fully booked but Ryan used his Google-fu to find Culinaria who had a remaining reservation for 2 at 9PM. We booked our dinner and then found a few bars in the area so we could check out the cocktail scene in Rome afterward.
We wanted to go inside the Pantheon since it had been closed when we passed by the previous evening, so we made our way over only to find a line around the block with many large guided tour groups. We hadn’t realized the popularity of this attraction so we decided we weren’t ready to wait in line and instead went down the street to Tazza D’Oro to get their infamous granita shaved ice coffee and whipped cream. These treats were good but very sweet, we ate them on our way to the Trevi fountain and then around the corner to Zara because Amanda needed a new outfit. Amanda found the perfect outfit in under 10 minutes, much to Ryan’s approval. We hit a few souvenir shops in the area, walked down to the Spanish steps and then caught the subway back to the apartment. We finished packing our luggage and drank the remainder of our Brunello di Montalcino on our balcony as we watched the sunset over Rome.
Dinner and Drinks
Culinaria was near the Roma Termini train station, so we hopped on the subway and sped over. The restaurant itself is very small, there were about 10 tables, all in a room with a glass wall view into the kitchen. It reminded us of the Pass & Provisions in Houston (the Pass side for aesthetics, the Provisions side for food). The waiter was fantastic, he was happy to give us suggestions and even told us our Italian was pretty good (we said like 3 phrases… he probably just appreciated the effort or wanted a tip). After all of the great regional Italian food we had eaten throughout the trip, we can surprisingly say that Culinaria was our favorite meal. We branched out a little with our wine choice and got a local Chardonnay that was very nice, then ordered this fluffy eggplant hummus ricotta amalgamation to start — it was so weird in texture but very tasty. For our main dishes we ordered a grilled squid with ink, octopus and potato hash, and seafood croquettes plate as well as lamb chops with some sort of sponged root vegetable and pureed beet sauce. The croquettes didn’t stand out but everything else was fantastic… the lamb chops and calamari were probably the best we had ever eaten, the sponged root was a great texture and had so many flavors going on, and the octopus was cooked perfectly. For dessert our waiter suggested the apple tart, it was basically a deconstructed apple pie with some cinnamon ice cream on top that tasted amazing.
Since we were planning to pull an all-nighter, we figured some coffee would be good, so our waiter said we should try an espresso with sambuca as it was a local favorite. Sambuca is a fennel liqueur that is awesome mixed with espresso, it was like a licorice-herbal flavor. As we were leaving dinner, about 50 yards from the restaurant we found a bag thrown out onto the ground, there was an ID, notes, book, etc all just strewn about… some poor guy had his bag snatched (probably at the nearby train station) and the thief ran out to here to take the valuables and dump the rest. We doubled back to the restaurant and found the chef outside, he walked over with us and said they’d go call the police so hopefully the guy got his ID and remaining belongings back – just another reminder to keep your things secure while traveling.
We were ready to grab some cocktails and found a place between our accommodation and the restaurant, so we headed that way. This walk took us through some of the trendier neighborhoods of Rome, we saw quite a few groups of Roman youths drinking in piazzas. We got to APT (the bar) and were happy to see it was an awesome cave and brick type interior with a great cocktail menu. It was relatively uncrowded other than a group celebrating a birthday and a couple of other random couples, so we were able to hang out near the DJ and talk to both he and the owner a bit. The owner’s English was great but the DJ not so much, which was hilarious because he was playing a ton of American songs and getting super into them and singing. The DJ danced probably the entire time we were there even though the place was almost empty, so he was obviously pretty into his job. We got up and danced at one point which the employees loved and caused another couple to pop up and start dancing as well… the owner asked us where we were from and was genuinely surprised when we said Houston, his next question was to ask how we even found the bar… it was apparent that they don’t get a lot of tourists (makes sense, the bar was down a side street and had little signage). We both got two cocktails while we were there: Amanda got one that was bourbon based and then one that was traditional Italian, while Ryan got a scotch cocktail and then a mezcal drink… the drinks were solid though definitely not as good as some we’ve had in Houston. After wine and apertifs all week, it was great to change it up with cocktails. We stayed for awhile and debated our plan for the rest of the evening — in the end we decided to just walk back to our B&B and nap until the cab arrived at 3:30 am.
Our taxi zoomed (literally over 100 mph) to the airport on empty roads and had us there in like twenty minutes, so we walked in and found a nice line waiting for us at the Air France check in. Our flight was scheduled for around 6:50 and it was roughly 4 am at this point… turns out the check in desk doesn’t even open until 5 am, the line was now gigantic and the whole process was a mess. Finally at around 6 am we made it through and were able to relax at the gate. From that point, other than an aborted landing (15 min delay) due to weather in Paris, everything was smooth sailing. All in all we had a fantastic honeymoon in Italy!